My sister has written about him here.
I'm adding to that, with this portrait of the man, written in 2006. It appears elsewhere, but I wanted to put it here as well.
He really was a magician.
Breakfast is slices of paw paw scored in a neat grid so you can scoop it onto the spoon easily. A squeeze of tiny hard limes from Malawi. Sometimes, its eggs and toast. and Iwomba asks, sclambala or flie? and sometimes, he shyly suggests, ‘what about eggie bread?’ Eggie bread is bread with a hole in the middle, and an egg fried in the hole. For some reason Iwomba thinks this is a special treat for me, and when I am home for the holidays he always offers it to me proudly.
After breakfast Iwomba asks me with anxious concern, ‘what’s for lunch?’ The cupboard is bare again. I am exhausted at the thought of searching the market on a blistering morning. Is there something in the freezer I ask, vague and non-committal. Lunch appears miraculously – slick cabbage salad and chicken pie.
Supper is soup and bread. Iwomba the alchemist, who can turn a couple of withered green peppers sagging on the bamboo shelf into a rich fragrant soup.
How do I write about Iwomba Zulu? Iwomba the herbalist, who knows leaves that make a scorpion sting disappear - but he’s not telling which leaves. Iwomba, whose memory archives store subtle combinations of allspice and cinnamon, bay leaves and clove. I’d love to take him to Zanzibar, to read the wind like he reads the steam rising from a curry.
Soup and bread. Iwomba’s made his preparations early. The soup is ready, cooked and cooled, balanced on a wobbly shelf in the crotchety fridge that we’ve had to tie up with legen* to keep it closed. The bread is cooling in the dark pantry. Iwomba’s going fishing.
When I was younger, I’d go too. I loved sitting on the bank watching Iwomba haul in hefty Cornish Jack and bottlenose while I struggled with the occasional wriggling squeaker and lots of roots and branches. Iwomba’s not a big talker. But he shows me how to tie hooks to line (twine, he calls it). And how to pierce the tiny frogs onto the hook and where to throw the line – where the water eddies and curls and the big fish are feeding. My line is always dead, or it tangles on the first cast. Frustrated teenager, I want to cut off my hook and start again. But Iwomba sits with the patience of a leopard and untangles it till the sun goes down. Lets me hold his line.
Iwomba never laughs when I don’t catch fish. Concern in his brown eyes. But when he guides them onto his own line with alchemy magic he smiles at me. And that’s the best part. Waiting for the smile.
Making Iwomba smile is a secret goal for each day. Actually it’s easy – compliment his cooking and his face cracks open with delight. All the natural worry that lines his face, all the kindly anxiety of no ingredients and ‘borrowing from the lodge’ melts like butter in a blackened pan. How do I write the life of Iwomba Zulu? It’s just my memories, marinated in woodsmoke, shot through with weevil dust. Iwomba using page after page of Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes to light the fire in the old Dover stove, coz he can't read it anyway. But his lemon meringue pie is like clouds with an underbelly.
1970’s: His early career. A dish-washer in the Chibembe kitchen, absorbing the recipes around him, he is patient and gloomy-faced until the day they are short of a cook. Iwomba do you know how to make Isaac’s green pepper soup? That big, cracking smile. Yes. He does. And it’s good.
1980’s: Norman moves to Mfuwe, to the all weather roads and all season prospects. Iwomba asks to join him. When Kapani opens, he loses the chance to cook for foreign guests, becoming instead a cook at the Ruins*, for Norman and family. This means no luxury ingredients or fluffy steam puddings. Cooking for Norman is like painting for a blind man. Soup and bread and eggy-bread and the occasional jelly and custard.
When we have guests he beams delight for they bring new recipes, spices and combinations. With closed eyes he smells the open spice bottles. In about 1987 Iwomba perfects his world-class curry.
1990’s: Iwomba returns to the world of safari guests, and lemon sponge cake for tea. Nsolo bushcamp. He joins a team of the golden oldies – John and Rice Time and a clay wood oven. I visit him there before he retires, driving the long powdery drive towards khaya trees that swallow me gratefully. And the tongue-smacking lunch that I swallow gratefully. I visit Iwomba in the back kitchen. He’s ready to receive guests – a slightly grim look on his face. But when he sees me the smile breaks like dawn. Hello Iwomba. Thank you. Thank you for lunch.
* legen is strips of bicycle inner tubing, universal fixing/strapping/binding material in Africa.
* The Ruins is my home. Its the family / behind the scenes / staff quarters counterpart to the Lodge.